Jackie ‘Ink Bitch’ Jennings: Tattoo artist takes on national TV

Confession.

I’m so afraid of needles, it took me until I was 25 to get my ears pierced, and even then the ordeal involved a lot of tequila on my part. Not the case for this week’s profile, Jackie “Ink Bitch” Jennings. She got her first tattoo at 13 and is one of the contestants on the upcoming new season of “Ink Master,” premiering July 16 on Spike.

PGN: I hear you’re a Jersey girl. JJ: I’m from right outside of Fort Dix in a small town called Pemberton. The whole family’s from there.

PGN: The whole family, does that mean a lot of kids? JJ: Yeah, I have six sisters and two brothers. Some are stepsiblings but they’re all a big part of my life.

PGN: Yowza! So what was life like growing up in Pemberton? JJ: Uh, it was tough. I had a pretty rough childhood. The area was pretty dicey and my mother struggled raising so many kids. She also had some addiction problems for a short time. It definitely wasn’t the easiest childhood, but as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

PGN: What was the scariest moment you remember? JJ: I don’t think it was any one scary moment, just seeing my mom go through her trials and tribulations. But in the end, she came out on top, so I don’t necessarily take it as a negative. If my mom could raise six kids on her own, I can accomplish anything. And after watching what my mom went through, as a kid when my friends would experiment with drugs, I always steered clear, so her problems had a positive effect on me. I never had the desire to try anything.

PGN: And your siblings? JJ: It’s about half and half. Some took the positive route and used our circumstances as a lesson to do better and some went down the wrong path. I have one sister who’s a nurse practitioner and another who chooses to dwell in the past and blame our parents for everything that’s gone wrong. I keep trying to get her to move on but it doesn’t always take.

PGN: What’s a favorite family memory? JJ: Just a feeling of love. No matter what was going on, my mother always let us know we were strongly loved. I’ll always appreciate her for that.

PGN: How did you get into drawing? JJ: I never took an art class but I was always doodling and always knew that I could draw anything that you put in front of me. When I got into my 20s, I started taking it more serious and started developing my skills. By the time I started tattooing, I realized that I could draw anything, even when I couldn’t see it.

PGN: Your artwork encompasses so many different types of styles and subject matter; are you a big scholar? JJ: [Laughs.] No, not at all! I’m not a reader or a TV watcher; all I do is work and draw. Some people are very specific, they’ll only do black and gray or certain types of tattoos. Not me, I want to learn every art form I can. My mind wanders to different subject matters and I want to be able to capture that. People wait three months to get in my chair, so if they want something that most tattoo artists don’t like doing, like tribal art, I’m going to honor their wishes. You sought me out and were patient enough to wait for me, so I’m not going to be a snob about it. PGN: Is there anything that you won’t do? What if Fred Phelps wanted a “God hates fags” tattoo? JJ: Oh no, I won’t do something racist or violent, or any kind of ignorant tattoo like a swastika. It’s my prerogative.

PGN: What was the first tattoo you ever got? JJ: When I was young, a buddy of mine had a cousin who moved here from North Carolina. He brought some Indian ink, which is what you use for jailhouse tattoos. You wrap a piece of thread around a needle and dip it in the ink. So I did my first tattoo on myself at 13. Who would have thunk that 15 years later I’d be an award-winning tattoo artist?

PGN: What was it? JJ: A heart on my finger.

PGN: I’m such a wuss, my stomach just flipped thinking about that. What’s your favorite tat? JJ: It’s funny, I’m covered in tattoos but my favorites are the simplest ones, that first one and one my mom gave me.

PGN: Did you just say the one your mom gave you? JJ: [Laughs.] Yes! One day on Mother’s Day I was taking her to the casino to celebrate and on the way we stopped in the shop. I told her I had a gift for her — I was going to get an “I

PGN: Yikes! She actually did it? JJ: Yup. She operated the machine and actually did the tattoo herself. I kind of had to force her at first— she was afraid she was going to hurt me— but then she really dove in. She shocked me! I had to jump back a little because I wasn’t expecting her to take to it so fast, but she really got into it.

PGN: Speaking of shocking, I saw clips from the first episode of “Ink Master” where they took you guys to a prison. JJ: That was definitely tough. The whole thing was a big mental mind fuck. They had us secluded so we didn’t see anyone or anything for four days and then they finally gathered us together at the prison and we had no idea what was going on. It was immediately intense. I think that first episode gives you an idea of what the season will be like.

PGN: In the clip, they showed one of the artists having a scary face-off with the prisoner. They were nose to nose screaming at each other. Did you get to pick your inmate? JJ: We basically drew straws. I think a lot of it is how you approach your client, whether it’s a prison inmate or somebody’s grandma. I had the guy feeling like we were best friends by the end of our meeting.

PGN: I guess you’ve finished taping a lot of the season already. Are you sworn to secrecy? JJ: Yup. We had a premier party but that’s it until the October finale.

PGN: So no celebration or defeat tattoos yet. Is it hard holding it in? JJ: The whole thing is hard because we had to keep everything confidential even before we started shooting. I was gone and I wasn’t allowed to tell clients why I wasn’t there. I just disappeared without anybody knowing where I was. They wouldn’t even let us tell our families anything. That part was really difficult.

PGN: Did you get close to your competitors? I see some reality shows and after 10 hours together people are in tears when someone leaves, “I’m going to miss you so much!” JJ: Yes, we got close fast. I think it’s because they picked some very, very talented artists and we all admired each other’s work. We all fed off of each other’s energy and talent instead of sniping at each other. I think that was a problem for the show this year!

PGN: Actually I like that, I’m more inclined to watch when the focus is on the challenges, not trashing the other people. JJ: Me too. That being said, in the interview segments, they really try to provoke you and at first I tried to talk around it, because I believe all art is beautiful, but then you realize that other people are in there talking shit about you so you have to play the game a little.

PGN: In crime shows, they always seem to have experts who can look at a tattoo and know immediately who did it. Is it really that distinguishable? JJ: Yeah, definitely. You have your favorite artists and you know their distinctions. It’s usually in the eyes where you can see a signature style. I never ever sign my name; I want people to know me by looking at the piece.

PGN: What was the hardest part of the show? JJ: Being gone. My mother’s real sick with stomach cancer and they’ve only given her a few months to live. I hated losing that time with her. It sucked. We filmed back in Easter and thinking I missed my mom’s last Easter was terrible. I felt really guilty.

PGN: But I’m sure it made her really proud. Let’s switch gears, do you travel much? JJ: No, the farthest I’ve been was to the Bahamas. I’m not the best on planes.

PGN: [Laughs.] So our tough tattooed lady is afraid of flying? JJ: Ha! I’m afraid of a lot more than that! You put a spider in front of me and I’m out. My girlfriend is all little and petite and I’m all the big one but if there’s a spider in the bathroom, she’s the one who has to kill it.

PGN: I did Angela’s portrait several years ago at Stir. How did you two meet? JJ: I was actually bartending at a place in Jersey and one of our regular customers used to also go to another bar that stayed open later. One night we all went after closing and Angela was there. I was actually straight at the time but I kept going back to see her for some reason. She’d flirt with me a little but finally she asked one of my friends what my deal was, was I straight, bi, what was up? He said that he didn’t know, so she told me she was going to stop playing with me. I was like, “Whoa, whoa, hold on now,” and I started flirting back. Turned on the old charm. I got a bunch of those little heart candies that you get for Valentine’s Day and started writing out sentences for her on her bar. [Laughs.] She fell in love with me!

PGN: So you’re a bit of a late bloomer too. I remember Angela didn’t come out until she was about 28. She was a high-school cheerleader before becoming a tattooed mom. JJ: Yeah, the environment I grew up in didn’t make it easy.

PGN: How did the family react? JJ: I’m really close to my mom, she knew right away. One of my sisters is also gay so I told them first and they kept it a secret for about a year, not even my friends knew.

PGN: And you’ve jumped from there to being out on national TV! JJ: I know! I love it. I finally feel like me. Everything about me, from the way I dress to my sense of humor, is authentic now. I found me.

PGN: Did you have any clue before Angela? JJ: Well, right before I met her I kissed my first girl. [Laughs.] It was actually the girl who introduced me to Angela! She was straight and we weren’t going down that path, it was just for fun.

PGN: Who would be your dream person to tattoo? They could be real or fictional. JJ: Um, that’s a hard one. Ellen DeGeneres or Rob Dyrdek. I think they’re both cool people.

PGN: I would do a tattoo of Jesus on Jesus. That way he could show it to people and say, “How do you like me now?” JJ: That’s funny. That would be a good one.

PGN: What happens in your recurring nightmare or dream? JJ: Right now it’s all about the show. Nightmares about getting negative feedback or waking up and having the whole world hate me!

PGN:I don’t think you have to worry about that. Any pets? JJ: Yes, my lovely dog, Radar. We have a cat too but that’s more Angela’s and he’s more mine. He’s tiny with the biggest ears ever. I tell him I love him every single day.

PGN: When do you lose your temper? JJ: I’m always a very happy person, but when I do get pissed, I get extremely mad — for about two seconds — and then I’m back to normal. People know just to leave me be for those few moments.

PGN: That sounds like a Taurus. What sign are you? JJ: I’m a Pisces.

PGN: Who was an idol for you when you were young? JJ: My basketball coach, Erika Ryan. My softball coach too.

PGN: Were you a jock? JJ: Yeah, I played high school and college sports — softball, basketball, field hockey. I got scholarship offers and everything and chose to go to King University to stay local. Big mistake, I should have picked someplace else.

PGN: What was your major? JJ: Elementary and physical education.

PGN: It’s July: What do you miss from winter about now? JJ: Nothing! I’d rather it be 110 out than be cold.

PGN: I ask about favorite teachers a lot; who was your worst teacher? JJ: Miss Dixon, my sixth-grade teacher. That woman should not have been allowed to teach students, she was so blatantly mean. She knew how to hurt your feelings. I remember I felt so bad for one kid. You know as kids hit puberty, they start to smell, especially boys when they haven’t started using deodorant yet. She took this poor kid and sat him in the middle of the room and made the kids sit in a circle around him. Everybody was teasing him, it was horrible! [Laughs.] She was wicked!

PGN: Evil! Three foods you wish were banished from the earth? JJ: Beets, liver and raw onions.

PGN: I guess since you work in such close proximity to people, onions aren’t a good idea. Do you worry about stuff like that? JJ: Yeah, definitely. I’ve actually worn the same perfume since high school.

PGN: Something nice Angela’s done for you? JJ: One of the biggest things after I finally chose to come out was a birthday surprise she arranged. It was about a year after we were together and we were planning on going on a skiing trip. Her bar closed at 3 and she gave me a map that she had made. She’s pretty artistic too and it had an old-style look with the corners burnt and a long poem that ended with “Let’s trade our skis for sand.” Two hours later, we were on the plane going to the Bahamas! When we got back I couldn’t wait to tell everyone that I was in love with her!

PGN: Outside of the tattoo world, what do you like to do? JJ: We’re restaurant hoppers. We like to try new things out. But aside from that, I don’t live a very interesting life, it’s pretty quiet except for work! Art is everything for me, even on my days off. My girlfriend hates it when I wake up in the morning and I’m immediately on the phone talking to people about work. One of my favorite artists, Hanna Atchison, basically says if art doesn’t consume your life, you’re not dedicating yourself enough.

Season three of “Ink Masters” premieres at 10 p.m. July 16 on Spike.